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Fan Culture – a social and political indicator

Beitar Jerusalem fans protest the hiring of Muslim players (Source: Reuters)

By James M. Dorsey

Remarks at 2. Colloquium of the Institute of Fan Culture, University of Wuerzburg, January 11-12, 2013

The past year has been one of repeated incidents of racism on the pitch. The question I asked myself was what could be gleaned from comparing last year’s shouting of racist slogans in Serbia during the Under-21 match between Serbia and England, and attacks by rabid Beitar Jerusalem supporters against Palestinians in a Jerusalem mall and Jews advocating compromise with the Palestinians.

Those familiar with Serbian football are likely to argue that there is no reason to be surprised at the incident. Serbian fan culture has always been highly nationalistic and had a racist element. It always has been violent. As far back as World War Two, Serb fans were believed to have supported the Nazis. And in the 1990s they formed key elements of Milosevic’s paramilitaries. In 2005, they raised banners supporting the slaughter in Srebenica during a World Cup qualifier against Bosnia.

Similarly, Beitar Jerusalem fans have always been known for their rabid hatred of the Arabs and Palestinians. The one thing that has never been clear however is who they hated more the Palestinians or the Ashkenazi Jews. Beitar Jerusalem is the only major Israeli club that has never hired a Palestinian player even though Palestinians rank among Israel’s top players. Beitar’s matches are characterized by racist anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slogans. In recent months, Beitar fans attacked a Jerusalem mall, singling out Palestinian shoppers, They also attacked a Jewish female musician on a street who expressed disagreement with their racism and violence and more recently vowed to keep their club “pure” in response to the hiring of two Chechen Muslim players.

Violence and racism is so endemic to Serbian and Israeli soccer that the Serbian interior ministry and the Israeli Football Association (IFA) have separate units to combat hooliganism and racism. In fact, the Israeli association is the only one in the Middle East and North Africa that wages an anti-racist campaign even if one can question whether it does so wholeheartedly and effectively. By contrast with Israel, the Serbian prime minister refused to acknowledge that last year’s incident was racist and the federation refused to investigate the incident. The federation’s attitude also contrasts starkly with the approaches of UEFA and the English FA towards racism and tarnishes Serbian efforts to join the EU.

So if the Serbians and the Beitarniks are fan groups with long-standing traditions and attitudes, what do the most recent incidents tell us about whether there is anything new and if so what?

In fact, they do tell us something, namely that they are one indicator of what does and does not change in society. Serbian prime minister Ivica Dacic’s attitude tells us that 13 years after the overthrow of Milosovic and his ruinous Serbian nationalism, Serbia has yet to seriously tackle intolerance and racism. In a broader context, last year’s incident at the Under-21 championship in Krusevac is part of the rise of a far-right in Europe that is anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner at a time of severe economic difficulty.

Similarly, the Israeli fans’ violence was at closer examination very telling. Beitar Jerusalem was taking its battles out of the stadium at a time that more than four decades of occupation of Palestinian land and perceived Palestinian ability to produce a viable partner in peace has hid a brutalizing effect on Israeli society. The violence also serves as in indicator of a greater degree of intolerance as well as a shift to the right of Israeli public opinion despite the emergence of a center-left political party – albeit one that refuses to work with Palestinian members of the Israeli parliament -- in this month’s Israeli election. That shift is symbolized by the attack of an elderly Jewish musician just because her views were more liberal than theirs.

There is of course a third major intersection of fan activism and politics these days. As we speak here, ultras are part of mounting protests against the government of Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi in the wake of the sentencing of 21 soccer fans in the trial of those allegedly responsible for the death a year ago of 74 fans in the Suez Canal city of Port Said in a politically loaded brawl.

And there is something else that these three case studies have in common that is I believe relevant to why we are here today. All three help us establish some definitions based on the work of Melissa M. Brough and Sangita Shresthova[1]:


1. We are looking at groups of people who assert their identity through popular culture – in this case soccer, but it could also be music or video. This assertion is active and often creative in its production of various forms of popular culture. Think of ultras music, graffiti and videos.

2. What sets the groups I look at further apart from other fan groups is their social and political activism defined as intentional action to challenge existing hegemonies and provoke political and/or social change.

3. Increasingly socially aware, politically engaged fan groups often are engines of movements that go far beyond the confines of what they are fans of – think of the very distinct political roles of fans in the creation of the gay movement in the 1950s or fans of Joss Whedon and the canceled TV show Firefly who continue to gather every year to organize "Can't Stop the Serenity," a fund-raiser for the women's rights and advocacy organization Equality Now.

4. A further commonality is that what politicized these groups or at the very least turned them into political actors were either societal trends that increasingly became intolerable or an event including for example confrontation with law enforcement. However I would suggest that as we move forward we don’t ignore efforts to turn enamor with a product of popular culture into civic action. One example of this is the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), a US-based nonprofit organization that works "for human rights, equality, and a better world just as Harry and his friends did." The group is inspired by Dumbledore's Army in the Harry Potter narratives. The alliance builds on active and creative engagement with the Harry Potter world by connecting its figures to goals of social justice such as fair trade and marriage equality.

5. Fandom turns political when it is employed as a tool of resistance or change as in the case of the Egyptian ultras, the Harry Potter Alliance, and the push to assert identity, nationhood or further statehood as in the case of the Palestinians, the Kurds, Kosovo and northern Cyprus just to mention a few . It is worth noting in this context that hitherto social movement theory has rarely been applied to the analysis of fandom. The importance of doing so is highlighted by the role of ultras in the Arab revolts and the fact that for example the ultras in Egypt constitute the second largest civic group after the ruling Muslim Brotherhood.

6. The role of law enforcement and security is often key in the politicization and radicalization of fans. Much of the post-Mubarak violence stems from clashes between the militants and security forces. Their battle is a battle for karama or dignity. Their dignity is vested in their ability to stand up to the dakhliya or interior ministry, the knowledge that they no longer can be abused by security forces without recourse and the fact that they no longer have to pay off each and every policemen to stay out of trouble.

That dignity is unlikely to be fully restored until the police and security forces have been reformed – a task Mr. Morsi’s government has so far largely shied away from. Official foot-dragging in holding security officers accountable as in the case of Port Said and the deaths of hundreds of protesters in the last two years reinforces the perception of the police and security forces as an institution that in the words of scholars Eduardo P. Archetti and Romero Amilcar[2] is “exclusively destined to harm, wound, injure, or, in some cases, kill other persons.” It gives “police power…the aura of omnipotence” who “at the same time lost all legitimacy both in moral and social terms… To resist and to attack the police force is thus seen as morally justified,” they argue.

7. Finally, this situation gives rise to the question whether all militant, violence-prone fans are hooligans. I would argue no. Israeli and Serb fans live today in societies with multiple options to express themselves and highlight their concerns and discontent. By contrast, Egyptian ultras as well as fans in for example Algeria or Iran, even if violence-prone are a perfect example of what Messrs Archetti and Amilcar argue. Egypt’s police and security force existed not to serve the people, but to brutally enforce the regime’s repression. Egyptians encountered their brutality not just in the stadiums but daily in the popular neighborhoods. Even if I favor a distinction between hooligans and militants, the North African ultras’ self-definition comes closest to the controversial view of Marxist scholars such as Ian Taylor and John Clarke who argued that British hooligans were the product of unemployment and urban decay, a “subcultural agent” that had been abandoned by his parents, government and his soccer club management.

All of this is food for thought, a first stab at conceptualization, an effort to spark a discussion that is long overdue.

Thank you.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Wuerzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.

[1] Melissa M. Brough and Sangita Shresthova, Fandom meets activism: Rethinking civic and political participation, Transformative Works and Culture, Vol 10, 2012, [2] Eduardo P. Archetti and Romero G. Amilcar, Death and Violence in Argentinian Football, in Football, Violence and Social Identity edited by Richard Guillianotti, London, Routledge, 2012, page 48

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